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Technology Enabled Learning and Instructor Choice
May 19, 2011 - 9:15pm

College courses only work if the instructor retains control of the learning environment. This control must exist across physical and digital spaces.

Don't these statements run counter to the ideas of active learning? Of learning as a negotiated process, where students construct their knowledge and are guided by the professor? Isn't the idea that faculty need to control the learning environment antithetical to the central tenets of student-centered learning?

No, no, and no.

You can believe in active learning and student-centered courses (as I do), and still understand the need for the faculty to control the learning environment. Our jobs as learning designers and educational technologists and academic computing people is to enable advanced pedagogy, often via technology. We can, and should, create learning environments where the default mode is collaboration, openness, and student-control.

In the LMS (learning management system), this means developing course templates that start with assumptions of collaboration, reflection, shared authoring, and peer feedback. Discussion boards, blogs, wikis etc. etc. should be the default, and not the instructor only controlled areas that usually populate new courses. But, we need to make sure that the faculty has the easy option of turning all these collaborative tools off. Easy and transparent opt-out options need to exist.

In the (physical) classroom, we can work with our faculty to leverage technology to create more seminar like experiences in traditional lectures. Have discussions about how laptops in class can be used effectively. But make sure that it is clear that the faculty member has the right to say "lids closed". Experiment with back-channels and response systems (clickers) and instant quizzes (formative assessments) etc. etc., but respect the faculty member who wants no technology in the class. The discussion should always be about learning goals and objectives, and how we can provide resources and assistance in helping the faculty reach her or his goals.

The need to retain control of the environment is particularly important in a large lecture class. Anyone who has stood in front of 50, 100, 200, 300 (or more) 20 year old's, and had to keep everyone in the room together, knows how important it is for the instructor to be the undisputed captain of that ship. The analogy for online learning comes not in the actual teaching (as good online teaching is more about coaching than lecturing), but in designing the course in the LMS.

However much we believe in the power of technology to improve teaching and learning, and whatever we think about active learning and student-centered classes, we should always remember that a course is the creative work of one instructor (or a team of instructors). It is their show.


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